Monday, April 08, 2019

The D word

I've had two recent queries that were well-written and compelling.
They were also so close in concept to a tv show or a movie that my first thought was derivative.

Derivative is a word that should send shivers down your spine cause you do not ever want to hear it applied to your work.

Derivative is NOT plagiarism. Plagiarism is stealing the exact work of another.

Derivative is more subtle. It's using a concept, but NOT giving it a new twist.

There are only seven* basic plots in the world so every book is going to have something in common with 1/7 of the novels being published. That's NOT derivative.

Derivative is that elements of the plot: characters, what unfolds, the twists, the ending are similar (not exact.)

If you read something derivative, you're not ever surprised, even at a plot twist because you've read or seen something similar before.

Here's the really scary part of derivative: almost every writer starts out doing derivative work. It's akin to student painters studiously copying masterworks at the Met.

It's a part of the learning process.

The problem comes when you don't recognize this novel that you've poured months if not years of hard work into hasn't moved beyond what's already been done. I know this and believe me when I tell you that telling someone their work isn't fresh and new is not something I ever want to do again. Ever.

So, how do you avoid derivative?

Ask your beta readers.

And think honestly about your work. Are you building on the work of others or just repeating it?

Here's the best example I can know of an artist creating something fresh and new from earlier work.

The instantly recognizable opening riff of Layla.

And the acoustic version.

Same musician both times.
But, adding to the body of work, a twist, a surprise a fresh look at a much loved classic.

Contest results tomorrow (Tuesday 4/9)

*this number is the subject of a lot of debate.
I use seven cause that's what I think it is.


E.M. Goldsmith said...

I noticed a lot of "derivative" work totally gets published. Lots of books in the fantasy/sci-fi realm, I put down because I have read something too similar that was done better.

I do worry about this with my own work. A book published in last month that I read was somewhat similar to what I am doing but not D similar. Still, demons and dragons. Simply, yeah, this is a thing.

And I believe most authors get "I already represent something like this" kind of rejections in the process to finding representation. After all, seven plots exist in life. Just the seven. Finding that new spin is a craft of the masters.

Stephen G Parks said...

I know I've mentioned here before that I got blindsided by the "it's derivative" comment decades ago. I'd written what I thought was an original epic space opera war story that was filled with deep consequence and gravitas. My buddy read it and said "yeah, you've re-written Macbeth." Sigh.

As far as works that show an artist revisiting/building on his past material, Pete Townsend comes to mind.

The Who song Baba O'Reilly has a very distinct sequence (sorry, I'm not musical. I want to call it a chord progression, but don't know if that's correct. It's the underlying part that goes Booooom, boom boom). The song is about social and emotion detachment.

Decades later, Townsend went back to that musical theme/chord progression/whatever, but inverted the lyrical theme with Let My Love Open the Door.

Michael Seese said...

I have always appreciated Clapton's remake of "Layla." In fact I like it better than the original. Another great one is Sting's reboot of "Roxanne," which he performed at one of the Secret Policeman's Balls. But for a truly great reimagining of a song, check out the Walk Off The Earth version of "Hello by Adele.

K. White said...

I have experienced the same problem as E.M. Goldsmith when shopping for SF&F books. So many of the blurbs sound the same regardless of the publisher. Often, I don't make it past the cover because it alone tells me there's nothing fresh inside.

That's why last year I decided to borrow books at the library first. If I make it past page 50, then I buy the book. Sadly, I rarely make it that far.

I, too, worry my writing will be perceived as too similar. However, that concern keeps me searching for fresh ideas.

Pericula Ludus said...

Ah, I fret about this endlessly. Of course my work was inspired by some other work. It has then shifted genre and time period and was enriched by a whole host of other fictional and real life tales. It's coloured by my own experience and has my voice, but in the end isn't it just the same old story? Then again, retellings seem to be so prevalent and are quite openly marketed as such. I really struggle with that line of what's derivative and what's a praise-worthy reimagining; what's fanfiction and what's simply another Plot No. 3 out of 7?

julie.weathers said...

Far Rider got rejected by a few agents because it was too similar to something an agent already had. The agent for Green Rider I could understand though they are completely different stories.

The last agent who gave me some extensive feedback said something that also gave me hope. He liked that I turned a lot of fantasy tropes on their heads. So, even though there were familiar things, the different things made it stand out.

I'm going to commit blasphemy here. I don't really like Gone With The Wind. I like the writing and storytelling, but I despise Scarlett so much it's difficult for me to read it. I worry a bit that people will think I'm trying to mimic GWTW. The stories will follow a similar path, but it simply was what happened. Mitchell did a lot of research. She used to ride with old Confederate soldiers when she was a little girl. She listened to the stories of the old women who lived through the war and reconstruction.

I just have to trust people will recognize this is a different woman and a different story and certainly a different writer.

CED said...

Stephen, I would totally read Macbeth... IN SPACE!. In fact, I was joking a few months ago with a couple of my critique partners that we should rewrite Shakespeare's entire canon in space, and title them X... IN SPACE! (sort of like Pride and Prejudice and Zombies). I mean, who wouldn't want to read Henry VI, Part 2... IN SPACE!?

Timothy Lowe said...

Three of my students astounded me this year by writing and performing a seven-minute skit entitled "Macbeth for Kids". It was a children's play retelling, emphasizing such moral precepts as:

Sharing (Duncan won't share the crown)
Washing your Hands
Going to Bed at a reasonable time

They pretty well showed how you can put a new spin on an old idea.

As for me, I have no worry that what I'm writing is derivative. I worry in the opposite direction -- lately, I've been in an extremely weird place, writing-wise. But you have to write what keeps you interested.

Janet Reid said...

I would TOTALLY read Macbeth in Space.

John Davis Frain said...

"See if you can spot this one." E.C.

Uh huh.

It's like Dickens saying, see if you recognize this open, "It was the best of days, it was the worst of days..."

*All hands clap* -- but then stop instantly cuz you know this time's gonna be different. And probably special.

Adele said...

Oh, Oh, Timothy Lowe - I'd love to see that play. They got me at "Washing Your Hands". Still snickering.

I don't see anything wrong with Macbeth in Space. Sometimes our well-meaning buddies say the most devastating things. My buddy said that if I hadn't always yearned to be a writer since my earliest days, I would never be one. For her, it was just an off-hand musing; for me it was a slap in the face. Feeling stupid and foolish, I abandoned my attempts immediately. Didn't write for a couple of decades.

Sometimes we give our buddies too much power.

Dellcartoons said...

>every book is going to have something in common with 1/7 of the novels being published

Only if all seven plots are used equally as often

Jennifer Mugrage said...

I would absolutely read the Shakespeare canon IN SPACE. Except, it would have to be in iambic pentameter ... and use a lot of the original phrases but with space puns ... and rhyming couplets that echoed the original rhyming couplets. But IN SPACE. Bliss.

"Washing your hands ..." I love it.

About being derivative ... gah, it's every writer's worst fear. I thought I had stumbled on a really unique setting and premise (like Timothy Lowe, just because it interests me) ... and then I found out there is a whole series by another writer based on the same setting. However, his books are very different in flavor. They read more like a movie scripts with plenty of action; mine, mine the effects of the setting on the characters.

My dream would be to be told that my work is derivative of Ursula Le Guin.

Timothy Lowe said...

Jennifer, I toyed with an idea of doing a book about Fleance, Banquo's son. Luckily I googled it before I did any work. There's already a 3-book series with him as a title character.

Barbara Etlin said...

Thanks for the musical examples, Janet! Both enjoyable, but I prefer the original.

Anyone hear Dylan in concert? I don't think he ever sings a song the same way twice. Some of them I absolutely couldn't recognize.

I love the idea of Macbeth in space. Shakespeare borrowed all of his plots, too. :-)

West Side Story is Romeo and Juliet in 60s NYC. Forbidden Planet is The Tempest in space.

Jennifer Mugrage said...

Timothy ... bummer.

Lennon Faris said...

I am reading all these comments and thinking, why on earth did any of these Reefers NOT write what they commented about?

Pericula if there is a line, I don't think anyone knows where. Clearly Stephen's buddy draws it in a different place than Janet (or most of the rest of us here).

Barbara Etlin said...

Oh, I shouldn't forget to tell you that when our friend's daughter-in-law had a baby girl named Layla, the doctors and nurses in the delivery room serenaded her with Clapton's song. (I wonder whether she'll be teased with that throughout school the way "Ba-ba-ba-Barbara Ann" followed me.)

CED said...

Lennon, I haven't given up on the Shakespeare in Space series, I just haven't started writing them yet. =)

The Noise In Space said...

The entire reason I love Babylon 5 as passionately as I do is because it's basically Shakespeare in Space. Not exactly the way Stephen and CED are describing it, but tragic antihero's fall from grace and redemption, mistaken identities, the wise fool, the lovers from different worlds (literally), some really stunningly beautiful monologues, bad dreams/predictions from magical beings/portents...a lot of the Bard's best-known tropes are there. Ever since I was ten, it felt Shakespearian, and that's why I love it so much. I could talk for hours about the writing on that show. "B5 is the best show ever written" is the top entry on my list of Hills to Die On.

Craig F said...

The light from Tolkien's fire shines through more than just fantasy. A lot of war books and thrillers have their roots in hobbit dirt.

The Bard also runs through every genre. Some days it is a plus and some days a minus to have people see those roots.

Kate Larkindale said...

Years ago I saw a musical in London called Return to the Forbidden Planet which was a kind of mash up of The Tempest and the B-movie Forbidden Planet. But with rock and roll music from the '50s. So yeah, Shakespeare in space... It can work.

Kregger said...

Wait a minute...didn't the Muppets already do Shakespeare in space?

JanR said...

Adele, me too. One of the first books I abandoned (I have way too many of those) happened because I showed a friend the beginning and they said watch out for an old person changed by meeting a child; that's a cliche. I felt completely rotten. And of course, that wasn't friend's intent at all.

I wish I'd had the fortitude to carry on with that story, because that cliche part was completely fixable, and I try to make that my takeaway. Like Janet said a few days ago, "Start over means it's worth working on".

Know your canon is such good advice, and so much fun to execute. Excuses to read? Sign me up :)

CED, me, me! I want to read those. Timothy, your students are amazing.

Panda in Chief said...

I'm having a hard time imagining anyone NOT wanting to read Shakespeare...IN SPACE!!!!
Or Shakespeare with pandas...

Richelle Elberg said...

Circa mid-2008, sitting by the bank, looking at a Loomis truck and I get my first inspiration for what would become my first ever (executed) novel. I originally envisioned it as a literary novel but early on, said to myself, 'Self, you've got to be more commercial.' A year later, with nearly complete draft in hand, I went to a pitch conference in NYC and was told by 3 of the 4 agents I pitched 'It's too much like A Simple Plan'. Which sadly, I only discovered half-way through. I hadn't learned that whole 'learn your canon' lesson.

A decade later and I'm working on my fourth novel and super excited and I discover a series, already made into a TV series, that has similarities. Tough toenails this time. I'm moving forward because New Mexico ain't Wyoming. ;) And my plot lines and writing style are different enough...I hope.

John Davis Frain said...


A Simple Plan (wonderful, by the way) is simply a Western moved 50 years later to the boonies. So, swap your Loomis truck for a Loomis space ship and you've got: A Simple Plan ... IN SPACE!

(If you're a pantser, you might have A Simple Plan ... LOST IN SPACE--but that starts to get derivative.

Okay, back to writing. Aphra Pell and I both have over 3000 words already this month. Anybody wants to join us on our quest for 500 words a day, the offer still stands. And it's early enough that catching up is no problem.

Keep writing!

CED said...

John, I'm in for 500 words a day. I haven't hit 500 every day, but I'm averaging over 500 (does that count?).

Stephen G Parks said...

I too would love to read a really good Macbeth in Space. Gotta admit, though, having read my own (apparent) version, it's definitely not there yet. And it's low on the priority pile now.

John Davis Frain said...

Absolutely counts, CED. 500 any way you can get 'em. And don't feel compelled to stop there if you're on a roll.

(I don't allow myself to count the 100 words I use in a comment here at the Reef -- unless it's 100 words for a flash fiction contest, which should count as 587 because that's how many words you need to create a 100-word story ... on a good day.)

Amber H. said...

John, I'm more of a lurker than a commenter, but I'm in for the 500 word a day challenge. I use a spreadsheet to track my word count (since I'm working on 4 novels right now - two in editing and 2 in writing), and I'm averaging around that.

Timothy Lowe said...

JDF - I am in as well! Though I leave for a cruise on Saturday so next week might be dicey!

E.M. Goldsmith said...

JDF - I will take that challenge. I already have 12000 words sort of - I removed 20000 words from my big ass WIP and then added 14500 so I am in a bit of a different place because revisions. If I don't qualify I understand.

julie.weathers said...


I'll join in with the A-Z challenge, though I think it's too late for me to do it officially.